It is 1649. King Charles has been beheaded for treason. Amid civil war, Cromwell’s army is running the country. The Levellers, a small faction of political agitators, are calling for rights for the people. And a new law targeting unwed mothers and “lewd women” presumes anyone who conceals the death of her illegitimate child is guilty of murder.
Two guards took Rachel into the hold for condemned prisoners, a small structure of limestone adjacent to the main prison. Inside, she slipped on a carpet of excrement. One of the guards lit a torch and hooked it into the wall. The other attached her leg irons to one of six rings bolted into the stone. The first guard, a young fellow whose helmet seemed too large for his head, advised Rachel to bribe the warden to move up her execution date. “To escape the stench,” he explained, gesturing apologetically at the floor as he left.
Rachel tried curling up on the end of a low wooden bench. She could hear rain against the roof. For a while she pretended to talk to her brother, but she could not hear him, could not imagine what he would say.
She did not pretend to talk to the child.
She would not even think the word child. She would push around it, leaving a wide berth; she would sweep all such thoughts in the corner. She would step over anything, avoid any obstacle, before she would think that word. Yet there it was. Every time she tried to dodge it, misery would whisper the word for her, and a clean whistling breath rushed through her. The emptiness hiccupped and gabbled at her, slid her crosswise. She wondered what her mother would say to her now. Probably Martha Lockyer would tell her daughter to confess, which made sense if one had a list of things to repent. But what if a person did not know for certain? She shifted around on the bench. She would force her brother to talk to her. She would conjure him up to calm herself.